Withdrawing from UNESCO: Symbolism and Next Steps

On October 12, 2017, the United States announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), citing a perceived anti-Israel bias and a politicized organizational mission. In general, UNESCO’s stated purpose is “coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture, and communication.”  UNESCO is well-known for many of its activities, not least of which is its Holocaust education programs and its designation of world heritage sites around the globe.  Although the United States is a founding member of UNESCO, this is not the first time it has withdrawn from the organization. The United States withdrew in the 1980s under President Reagan because of a perceived Soviet bias and mismanagement of the organization as a whole. The United States rejoined UNESCO in 2002 under President George W. Bush.

Image courtesy of The Niagra Foundation (c) 2015

In 2011, the United States suspended dues payments after the United Nations voted to accept Palestine as a full member state.  Under a U.S. law passed in 1990, the United States is prohibited from funding any U.N. agency “which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”  As a result, the United States is behind on its UNESCO dues to the tune of approximately $550 million.

Following the UNESCO withdrawal announcement, it is certainly reasonable to view this as just the latest—and entirely predictable—instance of the United States withdrawing from the international stage in favor of an inward-looking, “America First” policy.  The act of withdrawing from UNESCO on the basis of its now politicized mission could also easily manifest into further politicizing of UNESCO’s mission by creating a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy; when countries cede their membership and influence, policies the United States views as problematic are more likely to exist, which will then provide further support to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw when later viewed with the benefit of hindsight.  One commentator argues, however, that UNESCO’s mission has long been subverted and that the organization’s gross mismanagement shows no signing of abating, notwithstanding the United States’ extensive efforts to reform UNESCO over the years.

Withdrawing from UNESCO certainly presents a political win in the eyes of President Trump’s domestic base because it eliminates what many view as a sizeable financial obligation to a poorly managed, largely toothless organization focused on priorities unimportant to the United States.  As an observing member, the United States could easily distance itself from any of UNESCO’s controversial decisions, as well as any of UNESCO’s managerial scandals or poor programming.  Unfortunately, these views overlook some of the complexities around multilateral maneuvering between organizations that comprise the United Nations.

The Trump administration should have used the threat of withdrawal as leverage to achieve the type of Israel-Palestine engagement the United States desires to lead.  Simply threatening to withdraw its UNESCO funding might not have worked, however, as the United States hasn’t paid dues for years. Rather, the United States could have used the threat of withdrawal as a tool to extract structural changes within UNESCO, to achieve greater transactional transparency, and perhaps to gain further support for projects associated with the protection of cultural property within Iraq and Syria.

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